Tesla electric car man has his eyes on the skies as well as the road

via Flickr  NASA Goddard Photo (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr NASA Goddard Photo (CC BY 2.0)

Visionary entrepreneur, Elon Musk, the man behind the really rather splendid Tesla electric car, has his eyes on the skies as well as the road. In partnership with satellite industry luminary, Greg Wyler, he is developing a plan to launch a constellation of 700 Low Earth Orbit satellites capable of providing global Internet access.

Mr. Wyler, a satellite enthusiast through-and-through was, briefly, a Cookie Monster man. For a while he lead Google's 180-bird satellite Internet access programme but pretty quickly found the effort to be lacking in focus and immediacy. He was particularly concerned that Google (perhaps unsurprisingly) seemed to have little idea of how to manage a satellite production business.

In September he resigned, abruptly, and it seems it was a far from an amicable parting of the ways. Google has made no comment on the loss of their lead birdman other than in a terse press release confirming that he had left the company. Neither party has said another word about it since.

Google's nose is particularly out-of-joint because Greg Wyler's sudden resignation co-incided with Google also losing access rights to a big block of radio spectrum - spectrum that just happens to be the licensed property of WorldVu Satellites Ltd, which is owned by Greg Wyler. Hence the froideur.

A few weeks later Mr. Wyler began being seen at the offices of the space transport services company, SpaceX, in Hawthorne, California. SpaceX is two thirds owned by Elon Musk, but the company denies that Mr. Wyler is an employee. However, it does not deny that he 'could be' a consultant or potential partner in a new venture.

And SpaceX would indeed make an excellent partner in any satellite scenario. It certainly has the capability to loft large batches of satellites into orbit having successfully launched 15 of its Falcon 9 rockets since 2010 and has announced plans to launch 50 more between next year and 2018. Adding to the company's credibility is the fact that just a couple of months ago SpaceX won a US$2.6 billion contract from NASA to put its astronauts into orbit.

The proposed new constellation would comprise of 700 small LEOsats each weighing 250 lbs (approximately 114 kilogrammes). They would be the smallest and lightest commercial satellites to date - and they would be relatively inexpensive to manufacture and launch. Presently the smallest and comms satellites weigh about 500 lbs per unit and cost a minimum of anywhere between four and seven million dollars each to manufacture and launch.

Ten times bigger than Iridium

The new system would be ten times the size of the venerable Iridium constellation, the biggest satellite fleet currently in operation and that provides global voice and data communications to satphones. The Iridium constellation consists of 66 active satellites plus several spares in storage-orbit that are available to be flown-in to serve in case an active satellite fails or collides with another space vehicle - as has actually happened. Back in February 2009 the operational Iridium satellite Number 33 was hit by the Russian satellite Cosmos 2251, some 490 miles above Siberia. The resulting shower of debris spread over thousands of miles of space but almost all the pieces are believed to have burned-up on re-entry to Earth's atmosphere.

Iridium had a difficult birth. The system was conceived before widespread terrestrial mobile phone systems came into being and when mobile roaming was regarded as more of a pipe dream than a likelihood. However, by the time it was launched in 1998, earth-bound mobile technology was obviously going to conquer the world and that fact ruined the business plans and destroyed the future of many putative global comms satellite initiatives.

Iridium handsets cost $3000 each, calls cost $7 a minute and subscribers were few and far between - both literally and metaphorically. No-one was surprised when the company filed for bankruptcy protection nine months after it launched in 1998. In 2009, after it finally left Chapter 11 safe-haven, Iridium became Iridium Communications Inc. It is now a very successful but niche satellite comms player with three quarters of a million subscribers and annual revenues of half a billion bucks. The Iridium system is used extensively by the US Department of Defense (income from various US government departments account for 24 per cent of Iridium'd revenues) through a dedicated DoD gateway in Hawaii. Meanwhile another gateway, in Arizona, provides voice and data services to commercial customers mainly in the maritime, aviation and oil and gas industries.

Interestingly, a new, replacement 66-satellite Iridium constellation is under construction and will be sent into orbit between 2015 and 2017. They will be lofted on SpaceX Falcon rockets. And so, you see, everything comes together.

Difficult, but better than balloons or drones

The proposed Wyler/Musk LEO plan, whilst coming in at somewhat less than the usual telephone numbers figures long associated with traditional comms satellite ventures, will still cost a lot of money  - figures of between $1 billion and $2 billion are being bandied about.

And then, of course, there are major technological and regulatory hurdles to be surmounted. However, the window of opportunity for such an ambitious project is now, because, given the lengthy lead times of the satellite industry, it won't be open for very long and Google hasn't given up its space ambitions and neither has Facebook - although drone and balloons do not a satellite constellation make. Another spur is that WordVu's own spectrum will be up for auction again by 2020. Hence the sudden urgency and spurt of activity.

WorldVu will need help with producing upwards of 750 satellites and the word is that Wyler and Musk are looking at possible manufacturing partners in Florida and Colorado. But then, even if they do manage to get a 700 satellite constellation into orbit without major mishaps, on budget and within a five year time-frame problems will still remain - on the ground.

The Iridium system works so well technically because more than 90  per cent of the network is actually in space and there are few gateways and ground stations. The Internet is not a broadcast technology, it is duplex with uplinks and downlinks. Downlinks are generally manageable but uplinks are a different matter. It is not yet known exactly how the proposed new system would work or how many earth stations are planned but signaling problems will be very real. As the Scotsman said, "Ye cannae change the laws of physics, captain."

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